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A proposal for decentralized, informal language education

April 14, 2021


Audun Holland-Goon


The circumpolar north is a region of incredible cultural and linguistic diversity, especially among its Indigenous peoples. Yet, past colonial policies and increasing globalization are leading to a decline in Indigenous languages. A prominent example in Europe is the decline of the Sámi languages, spoken across the region of Sápmi, which includes northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Murmansk Oblast, Russia (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas, 2001). The traumas of colonial policies and continued marginalization mean that intergenerational language transfer is slowing, and the Sámi languages are classified as definitely, severely endangered (Moseley, 2010). Urgent action is required because these languages are central to the diversity of the Arctic region, the articulation of traditional knowledges, and the existence of Indigenous identity and cultural heritage. Therefore, I propose the development of a decentralized program of informal language education, incorporating new technologies, utilizing news media and entertainment, and emphasizing the role of family and community-centered learning.


The Sámi languages are a spectrum of related languages belonging to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. The languages are spoken across Sápmi and include Sámi, Ume Sámi, Pite Sámi, Lule Sámi, North Sámi (the Western Sámi languages) and Inari Saami, Skolt Sámi, Akkala Sámi, Kildin Sámi, Ter Sámi (the Eastern Sámi languages) (Ivanishcheva, 2014, 96). Demographic information on Sámi populations is relatively sparse, but Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas (2001) estimate an ethnic Sámi population of nearly 100,000, with around 25,000-35,000 Sámi language speakers. The majority of these speakers speak North Sámi, while perhaps only a few dozen speak the smallest of these languages.

Prior to the late 20th century, Sámi language policy was overwhelmingly aimed at eradication or assimilation. The Nordic countries generally implemented suppressive language policies to create “homogenous, linguistically unified” nation-states (Pietikäinen et al, 2010, p. 7). Discrimination and devaluing of Sámi languages played a role in their decline as well. The current policy landscape is better, though it is still lacking in many respects.

Perhaps the most significant piece of international legislation was the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Not only does it include “minority protection and anti-discrimination,” but it also incorporates “promotional obligations of the state” (Council of Europe, n.d.). This treaty was signed and ratified by Norway in 1993, Finland in 1994, and Sweden in 2000. It was an important step but is insignificant without national and community-centered efforts as well. Such national legislation has been adopted in the Nordic nations through a variety of Sámi Language Acts that have guaranteed co-official or minority language status in certain geographic jurisdictions, increased formal educational instruction, and legal protection of use in government services (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas, 2001; Jonsson and Rosenfors, 2017; Corson, 1995, pp. 500-502). Additionally, Sámi languages are taught in private language institutes and have been incorporated into some university curriculums.

Russia is a different story. The USSR enacted repressive policies on Sámi communities targeting culture and language alongside policies of russification. Post-Soviet Russian federal legislation officially protects rights to use and develop languages, but there is generally no government support. The responsibilities of language protection fall entirely the small community of Russian Sámi (Scheller, 2013, pp. 393-394). Russia has also yet to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Despite increased attention to the plight of Sámi languages, current frameworks do not satisfactorily address the issue of Sámi language loss. Currently, there is a lack of a singular overarching and sustained solution across all four nations, and for each of the diverse Sámi languages. Current responses have been relatively piecemeal and take place primarily at the local level. Furthermore, the preservation efforts of the smaller languages are lacking, especially in Russia where only around 800 people have knowledge of a Sámi language (Scheller, 2013, p. 394). Additionally, where legislation formally protects languages, linguistic revitalization does not necessarily follow (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas, 2001). Finally, there is limited Sámi-language media available beyond North Sámi, which is the most widely spoken of the Sámi languages. 

Policy recommendations

Given the current situation, desperate action is needed. In order to revitalize the Sámi languages, it is necessary to cultivate a population of active language users, rather than simply increasing the numbers of language learners. First, it is necessary to develop a fund for the development of informal language programs for both youth and adult language education. Sámi communities “must have the resources to show…young people that their languages are useful, relevant and desirable” (Jones, 2013, p. 11). 

Government protection is important and formal language education is both helpful and necessary, but these alone are often ineffective at linguistic revitalization. Use in the home is one of the most significant factors in maintaining or expanding a healthy population of language users (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas, 2001), so informal family-centered programs are an important step in language revitalization. Additionally, community-centered learning that emphasizes fun and excitement are good ways to engage children outside the drudgery of school (Fjellgren and Huss, 2019, p. 28).

It is also necessary to develop a consistent program to fund the expansion of Sámi language media. First, this must incorporate a variety of technologies in order to be accessible to all populations of Sámi: including radio, television, and online content (Jones, 2013, p. 10). Second, it must include span the spectrum of news media, educational content, and entertainment. Third, it must be targeted to a wide age range. Thus, it would complement informal language education promoted in the first part of the policy and any formal Sámi language education, should it exist.

Finally, it must also centralize the experiences of more marginalized Sámi populations, and the languages with fewer speakers. There is concern in Russia, for instance, where language learners favor the healthier North Sámi over the declining Kola Sámi languages (Scheller, 2013, pp. 409-410).

As Sámi populations are spread across four nation-states, there is significant difficulty in deciding who would implement and administer these policies. Sámi organizations that work across borders already exist, and cultural revitalization has been a sustained focus of such organizations. Expansion into language revitalization is a clear next step. The most useful combination of actors would include the Sámi Council, the Sámi Parliaments, and the various Sámi cultural organizations, working in conjunction with the governments of the nation-states in which the Sámi live. Furthermore, any proposed policy must also be consistent with Sámi values. Previous external meddling in Sámi linguistic affairs left lasting harm on the psyche of Sámi speakers across Sápmi (Fjellgren and Huss, 2019, p. 2). Thus, this policy cannot be imposed upon the Sámi people, rather it must be community-centered as Sámi communities are “empowered to promote their own languages” (Jones, 2013, p. 11). By the very nature of language education, such programs must also be implemented by those who already speak the language. 

Barriers to implementation

There are considerable barriers to wide and sustained implementation of any language preservation policy. First, the simplest barrier to the implementation of such a policy is funding. The research and development of the program and media requires financing. Previous efforts like the Nordic Resource Center for Sámi Languages and the Sámi Language Centers overcame this barrier by drawing funding from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund and the Swedish government, respectively (European Commission, n.d.; Fjellgren and Huss, 2019, p. 8). Second, the international character of the Sámi reduces the effectiveness of this policy in generating sustained change in every situation. Third, the Sámi are a significant minority in Sápmi and are interspersed among majority language populations. Significant proportions of Sámi populations are also urbanized and live distant from traditional lands. By incorporating emerging technologies, including informal and asynchronous online education and accessible online news and popular media, policy overseers can circumvent this challenge. Fourth, the heterogeneity of Sámi communities means that scarce resources must be divided among languages. This must be decided at the local level, by community leaders, current and potential language uses, and those implementing the policies. Nevertheless, the policy presented above provides a concrete step to build upon current successes a move towards a future wherein this diverse spectrum of languages is in common use among Sámi communities across Sápmi. 


Any comprehensive program of linguistic revitalization would be a significant positive step for Sámi communities in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. However, this policy approach is only a first step in protecting and revitalizing the Sámi languages. It begins to solve the problems of language loss by empowering Sámi communities to revitalize their own languages, by facilitating the creation of an active language-using population, and by engaging those most important to the sustained vitality of the languages, including youth, new adult speakers, and fluent elder speakers. Importantly, it shows young Sámi and other prospective language users the value in their Indigenous language. With additional funding, this program of decentralized informal language programs could expand. Language revitalization efforts would be benefited by additional lobbying and political action, expanded formal language education, implementation of mentorship programs, and additional language centers around Sápmi. Nevertheless, Sámi communities are looking towards a bright future of linguistic and cultural revitalization. With the implementation of such policies, Sámi peoples would also provide a beacon of linguistic hope for Indigenous communities around the circumpolar North and beyond. 


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